Starck Truth

By Guy Bird for The Official Ferrari Magazine , Dec 2010

Philippe Starck, arguably the world’s most famous living designer, talks exclusively about his childhood friendship with former Ferrari CEO Jean Todt, the esoteric car collection he doesn’t drive and why the car industry needs a revolution

“In my blood there is still rubber and oil and gasoline,” says Philippe Starck in his heavy French accent, musing on his family’s early years involved in motorsport with a childhood friend by the name of Jean Todt. “My older brother started to compete after being influenced by my grandfather who was a type of ‘godfather’ for mechanical parts for cars and trucks. My brother realised Jean was very light and a genius of multi-calculation so in competition he always chose him as his co-pilot to go faster. After a big accident my brother stopped but Jean continued to become mega successful in Formula 1 and that’s why Jean is almost my brother.”

It’s an amazing connection and highly appropriate given the location of Starck’s interview in the design studio at the heart of Ferrari’s Maranello HQ. Starck’s already had part of his guided tour around the Ferrari Classiche department and has also had a quick spin in a 599 HGTE between factory buildings for several photoshoots. He’s clearly enjoying the experience, but far from overawed by it, pretending to outrun the Ferrari car on a Ferrari cycle for one moving shot and playing the clown in front of the camera in among the half-completed vehicles on the assembly line for another. The mood is playful; it bespeaks a man who doesn't feel the need to take himself too seriously at all times.

This gentle irreverence reflects a young 61-year old happy in his skin

But this gentle irreverence reflects a young looking 61-year old happy in his skin. A skin wrapped in a jacket he’s designed himself and just one product among hundreds he has turned his hand and thoughts to since founding his first design firm in 1968. Some of his most famous product designs include a sleek juicer for Alessi in 1990 called the Juicy Salif, wireless speakers for Apple’s iPod, see-through polycarbonate plastic Louis Ghost chairs for Italian manufacturer Kartell, wrist watches for Fossil and power-generating windmills for the Pramac group. Far from elitist and expensive limited editions, many of these products are affordable household items usually with an organic and streamlined look that unites them. Beyond products he has designed numerous building interiors too, getting his big break in 1982 re-imagining several private interiors for the then French President Mitterrand. HIs more recent high-profile design projects include the Royal Monceau hotel in Paris, the Palazzina Grassi in Venice and the Alhondiga cultural centre in Bilbao.

He’s never actually designed a mainstream production car, although he’s done a few concept projects and also designed a motorbike – the Aprilia Moto 6.5 – deemed to be flawed in terms of performance by many driving critics but lauded as a piece of product design nonetheless. And despite that gap in his otherwise packed CV he seems to have great respect for the work of car designers over the last century.

If you want a quick answer about it – or indeed about anything else – don’t ask Starck questions that could involve a macro explanation. I thought I hadn’t but still got one involving the history of human evolution from bacteria to ‘super monkey’ (that’s today’s human).

He finally gets to the ‘car bit’ after several minutes: “Regarding cars and Ferrari it is very simple. There are two types of intelligence, theory and the practice. Those working on nano technologies have only theory and almost one idea. For cars, there was one idea, one revolution, one century ago. It is now another type of intelligence – empirical [i.e. founded on experience and observation] – and that is the beauty of cars. So for me today the car is one of the most beautiful examples of human empirical intelligence. That means the addition of style, know-how, second by second, millimetre by millimetre, gramme by gramme, to make the car what it is today. It’s astonishing. You can read all the last part of our modern story through cars.”

“You can love a car, hate a car, I don’t care, but you can read the development of intelligence – the good and the bad parts – through cars and when you are at Ferrari, you are at the ultimate of it”

He’s got praise for Ferrari designers and engineers in particular too acknowledging their achievements at the top of this elaborate design food chain, as he warms to his theme. “For me you can need a car, don’t need a car, love a car, hate a car, I don’t care, but you can read the civilisation and development of intelligence – the good and the bad parts – through cars and when you are in Maranello at Ferrari like today, you are at the ultimate of it. The first car was huge and heavy – and there are still stupid cars like that today that are completely obsolete – but Ferrari and Formula One are about reducing weight and increasing aerodynamics and power and the intelligence of the driver. You see the beauty of dematerialisation. Ferrari is the perfect picture of the top of one century of human empirical intelligence.”

He’s got quite a car collection too, but most of them are far from expensive, more esoteric and quirky. There’s a Mini Moke, a Lotus Super 7 (now gone), a Citroen 2CV, an old Jeep Wagoneer, three VW Beetle Kubelwagens, a Bentley Convertible for his wife, a four-wheel drive Mercedes, a bunch of others he can’t remember and a lot of motorcycles.

But then comes the bombshell. The seeming car design aficionado and lifelong friend of Ferrari’s Jean Todt doesn’t drive cars. “I resist driving cars but I buy cars, because for me it’s a tribute to human intelligence”, he says. “I drive motorcycles, because personally I think motorcycles are more intelligent than cars because they are about the ‘minimum’. When you see human production that fits in the story of human mutation they always go to the minimum. If you take the example of the first computer it was the size of a building. Then it was the size of a smaller building, then a wardrobe, a suitcase, a briefcase, yesterday night it was an envelope and tomorrow night it will be a credit card. The nano computer of tomorrow will be one billion times more powerful and intelligent than the first one.”

To be fair, his active lifestyle involves considerable travel abroad which doesn’t make the use of personal cars practical, as he continues: “when we arrive at the airport we have a limo to take us to the hotel and then we continue by motorcycle. Why have four wheels when you can use two? And tomorrow if someone shows me I only need one I’ll take one and after that if someone can show me I don’t need a wheel at all that will be even more intelligent and elegant.”

He’s also frank about car designers and engineers needing to fundamentally change their game again, to see the bigger mobility picture involving different forms of transport becoming more integrated, as he implores, “the car needs a revolution, there has only been optimisation – a fantastic optimisation – but zero revolution. I have been interested for more than 20 years in the ‘stream theory’. If you take cars and roads they are just boxes and octagons in a line. The stream theory involves how fish move in a river. The Segway is an incredibly interesting product too. I am very interested in anything like that.”

He has no respect of past traditions for their own sake but sees the chance Ferrari has – as such a respected brand well beyond the car industry and motorsport – to influence future change. “Ten years ago could you have imagined an automatic gearbox on a Ferrari road car? Everyone would have been like ‘Oh my God!’ But in five years if the perfect automatic gearbox changes gear faster than any human can then why not? When you have a platform like Ferrari, wow, you have the opportunity to change the world.”

There are parallels with Ferrari’s powerful brand influence and his own of course. Starck has become something of a design brand in his own right with a logo to match – with the lower case ‘t’ in ‘Starck’ rendered as a pale orange ‘cross’ among the other grey capital letters – and it features on many of his products.

Despite his undoubted confidence, he suggests humility in his persona too, claiming with some conviction that he’s not interested in the hype that so often surrounds him or his brand, adding quickly: “when you start to have a deep feeling of your success and your fame you start to be dead and addicted to money. That’s why we avoid this feedback and live very far from everything, we live very humbly, no cars, no electricity, in a small humble abode near fishermen. For my neighbour, a fisherman, I am stupid because I don’t know how to fish. Every morning when I wake up I have to prove that I am not stupid.”

“When you have a deep feeling of success and fame you start to be dead and addicted to money. That’s why we avoid this feedback and live far from everything in a humble abode near fishermen. For my neighbour I am stupid as I don’t know how to fish. Every morning I have to prove I am not stupid”

This self-enforced isolation is a deliberate part of his creative process as he feels overexposure to the ‘noise’ of life can be counterproductive. “Some people repeat the same stupid ideas,” he continues, “because they go to the same dinner, stay at the same hotel, watch the same TV and read the same magazines. That’s why we are so far from everything we don’t do those things. When we get a vision or an idea – good or bad – it is not one we have heard from those places. It is impossible to have fresh ideas when you are in the centre of the city with all that. I have no cellular phone and no computer but I have paper, a pen and a brain…”

All his postulations involve laudable values and alongside the ‘big picture’ proclamations make seem Starck seem very principled and aware of his responsibility as an influencer, but can it all be so simple in the real world? He still has a business with commercial concerns after all. But Starck really does believe that he – and for that matter Ferrari – have built up their reputation on not having to compromise. He starts another long but erudite treatise to explain his stance: “I think Ferrari is Ferrari, and I am what I am because we make the right projects with good quality and intelligence and bring a special ‘I don’t know what’, a type of ‘special touch’ and after that it becomes very simple. People love your product and because they love your product they love you and so they give you some dollars to pay you and it’s very well balanced and honest and a respectable exchange. You cannot call that business.”

“I think Ferrari is a sort of creative artist and me too, absolutely. If I was a businessman I could be perhaps one of the richest men in Europe or the world. With the potential of work we have we could develop on fire, but we don’t do it, we don’t need it. We don’t try to feel the money involved, we make money with something, we have some friends who appreciate and that’s all.”

Beyond Starck’s more heavily marketed projects for new chairs and computer hard drive back-ups often emblazoned with a large Starck logo, he has also recently designed more low-key projects – like a bottle of water to encourage people to conserve natural resources by drinking tap water and three departments for a hospital. He’s also particularly excited by a project he’s readying that he hopes will see the establishment of a kind of university for the study of pure creativity. As he reasons: “we are in a society where people always talk about creativity, but we are not really talking about creativity but the application of creativity. No one has ever articulated the real research to understand why? Why we have ideas.”

The project will be worldwide in scope and is, by Starck’s own reckoning, “incredibly ambitious” but one he feels obliged to succeed at, as he concludes, “even if we only find 10% from the project, that 10% will be vital, we can change the world with 10%. If and when we find out why we have ideas perhaps we can reorganise, boost and teach the most important part of our story, for without creativity and love… we are just animals.”

And then the interview is over and he’s off to play among row upon row of parked Ferrari F1 cars in a special hangar, picking up tyres and hiding behind vehicles, a massively talented maverick and thinker with a serious mission but one with a sense of humour too; a rare combination indeed.

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